For as long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve been giving the same assignment. I ask my students to write a story about their lives, a “personal narrative.” And when I explain the assignment, I’ve always, always, met with a chorus of “but nothing’s ever happened to me! My life is so boring!”
It’s always a long day at work, but today was especially long: a student meeting sandwiched in between two meetings with advancement at the college, and three lectures to prep, and the copier breaking down, and an article to publish. I customarily repair to a pub down the street a few days a week to wrap up my workday, right about when the walls of my small office start to close in on me. I try to go early and leave early, when I can. But today I didn’t make it here till almost seven o’clock. I still got a seat.
Balzac drank close to fifty cups of coffee every day. Before he wrote a single word, Steinbeck set twelve, freshly sharpened Blackwings on his desk. Poe made scrolls of narrow sheets and sealing wax: a tiny scroll for every final draft. Hemingway stood; Capote reclined; Dickens paced.
It’s best that I be as clear about this as I can — I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in her or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. – Stephen King, On Writing
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us…
It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from,
when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.
– From “Ars Poetica?” by Czeslaw Milosz
“Have you been writing lately?” I cringe a little every time I’m asked that question. There is no good answer:
Yes, I’ve been writing and no, you can’t see it; or
Yes, I have been writing but it’s all terrible; or
No, I haven’t been writing, and please please please don’t ask me why.
Writing poetry is not a pleasant process. Any writing is uncomfortable, I suppose, but there’s something uniquely dreadful about poetry. Czeslaw Milosz says a poet is a demoniac city; poems rise up like devils, unannounced, before they are exorcised by page and pen. A poet’s demons are caught, subdued, and arranged in neat stanzas for other’s perusal.
Pinning down your demons to be scrutinized like bugs under glass is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. No human is comfortable being openly frail and vulnerable in front of other people. When a poet writes, they struggle to capture the total essence of their humanity; their fear, rage, ecstasy, sadness, and joy. It is not easy to display yourself at your most human and your most vulnerable.
Yes, I have been writing lately. It is not a comforting process. No poet’s process is. Poetry is wrestling with your demons like Jacob wrestled with the angel; it’s private, it’s desperate, and, hopefully, there’s redemption at the end.